Nerdist’s film critic, Witney Seibold, has been watching and reviewing every film to have won the Oscar for Best Picture in chronological order. In week ten, he will be discussing 1937’s The Life of Émile Zola.
This is the second Best Picture winner in a row to go to a biopic, although this film couldn’t be more different than The Great Ziegfeld.
A confession: I have only read one novel written by Émile Zola: 1885’s Germinal. Zola is one of France’s most celebrated novelists, and his books are widely read in his home country. In America, not so much; it’s rare that I encounter someone who has read one of Zola’s novels outside of a French lit class. I do love Germinal, but I feel I need to further familiarize myself with at least Nana, Thérèse Raquin, and La Bête Humaine. Since this 1937 film speeds through Zola’s early years, I feel some context might be needed for the uninitiated.
I bother with this little lit lesson because William Dieterle’s The Life of Émile Zola is, frustratingly, not about the life of Émile Zola. It begins with 25 full minutes of film devoted briefly to Zola’s rise as a famous novelist, but then dispenses with Zola altogether while it hunkers down with the real plot: That of the now-infamous Dreyfus Affair, which lasted from 1884 to 1906. And since the film assumes that audiences know about The Dreyfus Affair, you might want to familiarize yourself with the details of that event as well before a viewing; a working knowledge of French history is kind of necessary. In short: A Jewish officer named Dreyfus was wrongly accused of sneaking secrets to the German army. Although it was pretty clear a higher-ranking official named Esterhazy was the real culprit, Dreyfus was still kept in a remote prison in French Guyana for five years. The French military was very sneaky about covering up the crime. It wasn’t until Zola wrote his famous letter “J’accuse,” that the injustice in the case was brought to the public’s attention, and Dreyfus was exonerated.
Had this film cut out all the bits about Zola’s personal life, how he came to write Nana, and his place in French society, The Life of Émile Zola would be a better film; also, if it had changed its title to just The Dreyfus Affair and was done with it. About 85 of the film’s 116 minutes are great. The rest feels like padding.
The sequences wherein Zola (Paul Muni) is on trial are the most interesting parts. The injustice and corruption on display, met by the resolute and innate sense of justice of the hard-working defense attorney (John Litel) are moving, lively, and intense. You will be reminded of scenes from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Anatomy of a Murder. You can see the obvious evasions of the court to protect the French military, the sniveling of Esterhazy (Robert Barrat), and the overall mistreatment of Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), and feel the outrage that Zola must have felt when penning “J’accuse.” Indeed, this entire film could have been staged as a courtroom drama, and the impact would have remained the same.
The acting is pretty great all around, and I was especially fond of Schildkraut as Dreyfus. Near the film’s end, when Dreyfus is finally released from his half-decade of incarceration, Dreyfus gleefully leaves his cell, re-enters it, and leaves again, just to experience the joy of leaving the place over again. It’s a great little moment. Paul Muni is best known for his portrayal of Zola, and he portrays the great author as an intense and flippant aesthete. Kind of like the eccentric old professor you always hoped you’d get in college.
The real question about this film: Why was America so interested in The Dreyfus Affair in 1937? Some modern critics have cited The Life of Émile Zola as America’s metaphorical reaction to the rising tide of Nazi Germany. 1937 was well before WWII was to begin in earnest, and the Nazi party was, at the time, seen merely as a corrupt government that vaunted the military, and not yet as the evil world power it was to become. Many feel America was naïve about what the Nazi party was to become. If those modern critics are correct, then a viewing of The Life of Émile Zola will reveal America’s general (perhaps naïve) attitude at the time.
Also, if this film is an allusion to the Nazi party, then it marks the first film in The Academy’s long, long artistic love affair with World War II. The joke goes that if you want to win an Oscar, make a film with Nazis in it. This proved to be true, even before the war began.
So, as a biopic, The Life of Émile Zola is kind of half-assed and certainly lackluster. It doesn’t really examine the importance of the title character, and reduces his extensive career and philosophies into was is essentially an extended montage. Even his death (by carbon monoxide poisoning) feels tacked on. But as a courtroom drama, and as a depiction of government corruption, this film is pretty first rate. Start 25 minutes in, and you’ll get the idea well enough.
Join me next week for You Can’t Take It With You.